Middle Eastern Cuisine Questions and Answers

Middle  Eastern Cuisine Questions and Answers


During the course of the week, we get many questions regarding our menu as well as general information about the Middle Eastern cuisine or about Blue Olive Grill, so we have put together common or frequent questions asked by our customers. This is an ongoing project and will be updated regularly or as needed. We appreciate your feedback. Please write to waleed@blueolivegrill.com

Q. What is Middle Eastern (Arabic) foods?

A. The Middle East is an expansive area with a wide variety of different cultures and cuisines, which leaves a lot of people wondering exactly what is Middle Eastern food. The cuisine of this region has become extremely popular in the United States, and for good reason. Middle Eastern dishes are loaded with vitamins and nutrients and prepared with a blend of mouth-watering spices, flavorful herbs and fresh, healthy ingredients. When it comes to figuring out what is Middle Eastern food, it helps to take a look at some of the countries in the region. Nations like Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey have rich culinary traditions influenced by a wide variety of different cultures that have lived in, invaded or traveled through the area throughout history. Some of the staples of the region include lamb and fish, lentils, chickpeas, rice, couscous, olive oil, yogurt, and a wide selection of seasonal fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs. The result is a well balanced diet that tastes as good as it is good for you.

You can also check out  Wikipedia for more detailed information. Middle Eastern food is also referred to as Arabic food in the Middle East. Arabic food is often categorized into regions: Lebanon, Syria, Palestinian territories, and Jordan. Another region is the Persian or Arabian Gulf (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman). Yemen is a region by itself. The North Africa region (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) is also included. Of course, Moroccan cuisine is becoming very popular in America. And let's not forget war-torn Iraq! They have wonderful dishes as well. 

Q. What are typical or common ingredients in a Middle Eastern home pantry? 

A. Middle Eastern cuisine itself breaks down into several subcategories, among those are the cooking traditions of the Levant, Egypt, the Arabian peninsula, the Maghreb (North Africa), and Iran Ingredients common to most of these cuisines are honey, herbs, parsley, mint, sesame seeds, eggplant, tomatoes, rice, bulgur wheat, couscous, chicken, pigeon, lentils, chickpeas, dried fruit, figs and dates.

Here is a list of foods commonly eaten in the Middle East and North Africa. Use it to stock your own home with the essentials of the Middle Eastern kitchen

Breads and Grains: Barley, Bulgur, Couscous, Filo, Kadaifi, Pasta, Rice, Semolina, Wheat

Vegetables and Beans: Cabbage, Carrots, Eggplant, Garlic, Grape Leaves, Green Beans, Okra, Onions, Olives, Peppers, Spinach, Tomatoes, Zucchini. Beans include Chickpeas, Favas, Lentils, Split Peas

Fruits, Nuts and Seeds: Dates, Figs, Grapes, Lemons, Limes, Oranges, Pomegranates, Quince, Raisins, Almonds, Pine nuts, Pistachios, Sesame Seeds, Walnuts

Meats, Poultry and Fish: Beef, Camel, Goat, Lamb, Chicken, Pigeon, and a wide variety of fish depending on region

Eggs and Dairy: Eggs, Cheese, Yogurt

Sauces, Condiments & Oils: Tahini, Harissa, Honey, Orange Flower Water, Rose Water, Za'atar, Olive Oil

Spices and Herbs: Cardamom, Cinnamon, Cloves, Coriander, Cumin, Red Pepper, Sumac, Cilantro, Dill, Mint, Parsley, Thyme

Q. What menu items have garlic?

A. The question should be what menu items don't have garlic! Garlic is very essential to the Middle Eastern cuisine and therefore pretty much everything on the menu has garlic. The items with heavy garlic presence include Touma (a popular Lebanese garlic sauce for the chicken wraps), Grecian sauce (tzatziki) and our home made dressing. Of course, hummus and baba ganouj have good amounts of garlic as well.

Q. What is the most popular or most consumed vegetable in the Middle East?

A. Potato is the No. 1 vegetable in the United States but in the Middle East, it's the beloved eggplant. Eggplants are the most consumed vegetable and for good reasons too! Eggplants are very versatile. They can be grilled, roasted, baked, or stuffed. They are used for stews, soups and salads. And the second most popular dip (after hummus) is baba ganouj which is made of roasted eggplant puree. You can also pickle baby eggplants for delicious makutus. Versatile, visually appealing, and delicious, eggplants are a vegetarian's dream vegetable. For eggplant recipes, see Delightful Eggplant Dishes From the Middle East and North Africa

Q.  Do Middle Eastern countries have similar or same foods and recipes?

A. Similar, yes, but certainly not the same.  Just like the U.S. has many fares, so does the Middle East. Persian  and Turkish cuisine are probably most different from their Arab neighbors. Also, Arab food is slightly different from one region to another.  For example, foods of the Levant are very similar but very different from foods of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf or North African countries. Foods that are native to each country greatly vary by what is available. You will also find names of food may be different in some countries, yet contain the same ingredients. For example, Barbosa, Harissa and Namoura are names for the same Arabic dessert but different countries have different names.

Q. What food in a typical or traditional Middle Eastern restaurant is vegan?

A. There may be no cuisine that’s so reliably vegan as Middle Eastern food. Middle Eastern food is a natural choice for vegetarians. And that’s a weird thing to say given that most Middle Eastern restaurants main feature is the Gyro or chicken shawarma rotisserie. But as long as you avoid the meat-containing dishes, traditional Middle Eastern food contains no eggs and only rarely contains dairy products.
Here are some of the most popular vegan foods from the middle east than can be found in Middle Eastern restaurants:
  • Falafel (deep-fried garbanzo bean/garlic/parsley balls)
  • Hummus (a paste made from garbanzo beans, tahini, garlic, & lemon juice)
  • Baba ganouj (roasted mashed eggplant with tahini and garlic)
  • Salads (tabbouleh, Fattoush and Arabic salads)
  • Eggplant moussaka (stewed eggplant and tomatoes)
  • Lentil soup (there are a variety of lentil soups and stews depending on region)
  • Tahini dressing (sesame butter, lemon juice, water)
  • Makutus (pickled small eggplants in olive oil stuffed with walnuts and garlic)
  • Touma (popular Lebanese garlic sauce)
  • Pita bread (a puffed pocket bread that can be stuffed with the above items)
  • Dolmans (Rice, herbs, and olive oil wrapped in a grape leaf)
  • Garnishes of olives, peppers, and pickled turnips

So what non-meat dishes do you still have to look out for? Tzatziki is a cucumber/yogurt dish, not as popular as anything listed above, but still widely found in Middle Eastern restaurants. And it’s possible that dolmans may be soaked in a meat broth, so you’ll want to ask about that.

Q. What is Halal food? Is that Middle Eastern too?

A. Typically Halal refers to meats. Halal meat is meat that has been slaughtered according to Islamic law, as laid out in the Qur'an. This particular type of slaughter is called dahabeah (or zabiha), it requires that an animal's throat be slit swiftly with a sharp blade to ensure as little pain and suffering as possible. Halal food is food consumed by Muslims all over the world and not just in the Middle East. For more info, see Halal on Wikipedia

Q. Is Pita bread (aka Arabic bread or Khubz Arabi) the only bread of the Middle East? 

A. While pita bread is the most widely consumed bread in the Middle East, it certainly is not the only bead.  Arabs, the majority people in the Middle East, eat bread with every meal. In tradition and in daily life, bread is held to be a divine gift from God. The Egyptians call bread 'aysh' which means “life itself.” 

Pita bread, like all most of Middle Eastern breads, is usually soft and pliable — perfect for the Arab way of eating. One of the greatest advantages of this type of bread means that you can take pita bread and dip it in olive oil, yogurt spreads, hummus, and tahini — no need for a knife or a spoon.

Pita bread is used for picking up meat, vegetables, and salads and serves as a scoop for sauces, dips, yogurt, and other semi-liquids. When the loaf is cut into two, the top and bottom of the loaf separate easily and the halves form pockets which can be filled with hot falafel, shawarma (barbecued meats), kofta (Arab version of hamburgers), and/or salads to make delicious sandwiches.

Here is a run down of Middle Eastern breads:

- Taboon (Levant region)

- Markook / Saj / Shrak (Levant region)

- Palestinian Kmaj (thick pita)

Egyptian Pita (Aish Baladi)

- Iraqi Samoon

- Yemeni Malawah Bread

- Yemeni Khubz

- Moroccan  (Thick Arabic Pita Bread)

- Moroccan Mesmen

- Khubz Mohalla (Sweet Bread)

 - Persian Breads (Sangak, Berberi and Lavish)

- Afghani Bread Naan e-Afghani 

Q. What are common Middle Eastern spices and herbs?

The Middle East is famous for its spicy, flavorful dishes mainly because Arabian spice traders once monopolized the market on spices and provided that region with access to just about every spice available. Spices were highly prized in the Middle Ages because food spoiled so quickly due to poor hygiene standards and appalling food preservation methods. Hundreds of years ago, spices helped to mask the flavor of foods that were less than fresh and made them more palatable. Some spices even helped prevent food from deteriorating so quickly in the hot summer months. Here are the top Middle Eastern spices:

- Cumin
- Nutmeg
- Cinnamon
- Coriander
- Turmeric
- Nutmeg
- Sumac
- Bharat (mixed spices)
- Caraway
- Aniseed
- Allspice
- Za'ater
- Fresh and dried mint
- Fenugreek
- Saffron
- Clove 

Health Benefits of Eastern and Middle Eastern Spices 

Help the digestive processPepper, Pimento, Coriander, Cumin
Reduce cholesterolCoriander, Sesame
Help fight skin disordersCoriander
Full of antioxidantsCoriander, Ginger, Garlic, Thyme
Help against insomniaCumin
Reduce respiratory disordersCumin, Cloves, Cardamom, Sesame
Boost immunityCumin
Anti CarcinogenicCumin
Anti inflammatoryPimento, Ginger, Nutmeg
Full of mineralsPimento, Cloves
Effective against diabetesCinnamon
Help reduce nauseaCloves
Increase blood circulationCloves, Nutmeg
Contains Omega 3, protein, iron and zincMustard
Inhibits cancer cell growthMustard
Decrease symptoms of arthritisMustard, ginger, sesame
Speed up metabolismMustard
Help detoxify the bodyCardamom
Relieves sore throatsCardamom
Lower blood pressureNutmeg, Paprika, Sesame
Great source of vitamin CPaprika

Q. Why does hummus from a restaurant tastes different (better) than my homemade hummus?

A.  There is no secret to making hummus. We use the basic ingredients that go into making the hummus which are chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), salt, lemon juice and of course garlic. However, we follow a method to ensure the hummus comes out creamy and flavorful. We don't add cumin,  olive oil or anything else. We keep it simple. Please see the hummus post for tips.

Q. What is the difference between Tzatziki and Grecian sauce (as listed on Blue Olive menu)?

A. Both are kind of same but different. A typical Tzatziki sauce is made of Greek(or any) yogurt, dill, and mint, but Grecian sauce (our dip) is actually made of sour cream. Sour cream holds together better and is more satisfying and tastes better than yogurt. We use mint and oregano among other ingredients, but we don't use dill.

Q.  Most other restaurants offer a single cuisine or origin (Italian, Chinese, Mexican, etc.) but Blue Olive offers Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. Why?

A. There is really a long answer to your question but here is the short answer. Middle Eastern countries which comprise of mostly Arab countries have similar foods, cultures, heritage and language (Arabic). So rather than offering Lebanese, Syrian, Egyptian or Yemeni cuisine specifically, all are lumped under Middle Eastern. Of course, countries such Lebanon, Syria or Palestine (Mediterranean nations) have different flavors than countries from the Gulf regions such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or Oman. Dishes from those countries tend to be spicier as they are influenced by Indian spices. Iran is not an Arab country though it is Middle Eastern and they have many dishes that are similar to some Arab counties. Most Iranian-owned restaurants actually call themselves Persian restaurants. It's pretty much the same for Turkey. Turkey can be Middle Eastern or part of the European nations. Again, this is the short answer to your question but hope it helps!

Q. Are dolmans Greek or Middle Eastern or what?

Dolmans have origins in the Middle East as well Greece, Turkey, Balkans and Russia. They have different names and although most are made of grape leaves, other vegetables are used such as zucchini, peppers, onions and eggplants. In the Middle East, meat stuffed grape leaves are extremely popular and are called Waraq Inab Mahshi.or or Dawalyeh.

Q. Okay so Blue Olive Grill is really a Middle Eastern restaurant so why do you go by Greek restaurant as well?

A. Although there is a world of difference between our cuisine and the Greek cuisine (both are certainly world class cuisines), we have a lot in common plus we prepare and serve many Greek favorites. In Louisiana, for some unknown reasons, there are ton of Greek and Lebanese restaurants. They are not called Middle Eastern restaurants! Nope, they go by Greek and Lebanese or Mediterranean restaurants. The common items include hummus (hummus is Arabic), dolmans, kabobs, gyros (shawarma in Arabic), spinach pies, baklava and more.

Q. What about Baklava? Who owns it?

A.  This is a very gray area and countries fight over it especially Turkey and Greece. But most certainly Baklava (Baklawas in Arabic) have roots in Turkey (or during or before the Ottoman Empire) But who cares? Let's just enjoy it!

Q. What is Kibbeh?

A.  Kibbeh, kibbe, kibbeh is a Levantine dish made of bulgur, minced onions, and finely ground lean beef and/or lamb meat with Middle-Eastern spices. Pine nuts are also added. Kibbeh Neyeh or raw kibbeh is very popular in Lebanon and usually made of very fresh minced beef or lamb but don't try that at home!

Q. What is Mezzeh (Mezzah)?


A. Mezzeh is a spread of appetizers or small foods. Popular Middle Eastern mezzeh include baba ganouj, hummus, tabbouleh, pies, and labneh. Olives and pickles are almost always included in a mezzeh spread. The spread stretches from 4 to 20+ small dishes. Mezzeh are very popular in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Jordan.

Q. Often when I go to a Middle Eastern or Greek restaurant, server/cashier/owner claim they have the best hummus in the area! Do you?

A. Of course not. That would be silly. First of all, taste is subjective. There is no such thing as best hummus or best coffee or best whatever. Our hummus is balanced. Not too garlicky or too lemony or too thick. You get the idea! But my grandma's hummus is the best. :)